Happy Geek Pride Day!

Did you know today is International Geek Pride Day?  Here in Special Collections, we’re celebrating with a selection from the Comic Art Collection.  This collection contains over 3,500 catalogued comic book titles and hundreds of pieces of original art from cartoonists like Mort Walker, Frank Stack, and John Tinney McCutcheon, ranging in date from the 1850s to the present.

The Comic Art Collection unites fun and fandom with serious scholarship.  It has been used by faculty and students for everything from freshman composition assignments to studies of the history of popular culture.  In 2008, scholars, comic enthusiasts, artists, and students of all interests demonstrated the collection's broad appeal by convening at Ellis Library to celebrate 75 years of the comic strip Alley Oop.  Special Collections holds the papers of the comic strip's creator, V.T. Hamlin.

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Cover from the original Star Wars comic, 1977Cover from Captain America, 1968Cover from a 1987 Batman comicCover from a 1988 Action Comics with SupermanIllustration from a Buck Rogers comic, 1940sCover from Red Ryder Comics, 1942Illustration from Dick Tracy, 1943Cover from Flash Gordon, 1950Cover from a comic book edition of Edgar Rice Burrough's Tarzan,  1960Cover from an Alley Oop comic book, 1955Illustration from a comic version of The Hobbit by J.R.R. Tolkien, 2001Cover for Fray by Joss Whedon, 2003








The Comic Art Collection is open to the public in the Special Collections Reading Room. All patrons – geeks and non-geeks alike – are welcome to make use of these materials.

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Kelli Hansen

Kelli Hansen is head of the Special Collections and Rare Books department.

home Resources and Services, Special Collections and Archives Presses and Preachers, or, What an Incunable Can Tell Us about Technology and Faith

Presses and Preachers, or, What an Incunable Can Tell Us about Technology and Faith

The Special Collections and Rare Book department recently acquired four incunables,[1] and we’ll be featuring them individually on the blog.  This post highlights Sermones de adventu by Roberto Caracciolo (Venice, 1474), a book interesting for what it can tell us about religion and technology.

Renaissance Preachers

Author's nameThe author of this book, Fra Roberto Caracciolo de Lecce, was one of the most successful preachers of the fifteenth century, hailed as a “second St. Paul” for his oratorical talents.

As a preacher, Caracciolo’s crowd-pleasing specialties were melodrama and spectacle; he even boasted that he could reduce any audience to tears.  His career started early.  By 1450, when he was only in his mid-twenties, he was well-known enough to be chosen by Pope Nicholas V to deliver the official canonization eulogies for Bernardino of Siena.  Later in his career, when asked to preach a crusade sermon against the Ottoman Turks, he did so in full knight’s armor, complete with a sword.  It’s no wonder that large, enthusiastic crowds flocked to hear him wherever he went.

Eager to capitalize on the popularity of Caracciolo and his colleagues, printers issued voMarginalialumes of their sermons in Latin and vernacular Italian.  Caracciolo alone had at least eight different editions of his sermons printed throughout Italy from the 1470s until his death in 1495.  By the time the sixteenth century drew to a close, over one hundred editions of his works had been printed throughout Europe.

This volume contains Caracciolo’s sermons on Advent, St. Joseph, the Beatitudes, divine charity, and the immortal soul, as well as a sermon by the canon lawyer Dominicus Bollanus on the immaculate conception of the Virgin Mary.  It preserves the words Caracciolo’s audiences heard and read so that we can access them today.  Thanks to this copy’s scattered marginal notes in sixteenth-century handwriting, we can even know how they responded.

The Fifteenth-Century Tech Boom

Title pageAs Caracciolo’s career as a preacher reached its height, Italy stood on the brink of a technological revolution.  Gutenberg had developed movable type in Mainz around 1455, but it took about a decade for the technology to reach Italy.  Venice had to wait even longer – until 1469.  That’s the year that Johannes of Speyer emigrated from Mainz, got a five-year monopoly from the Doge, and set up shop as the city’s first printer.

Unfortunately for the Speyers, Johannes died around eighteen months later, invalidating the monopoly.  His brother Vindelinus attempted to carry on the business, but Johannes’ death touched off an equivalent of the dot-com boom of the late 1990s.   Within three years, there were at least a dozen printing shops in Venice, all producing the same Greek and Roman texts – over 80 different editions of them by the end of 1472.  By 1473, the book market was so glutted with classics that the bottom dropped out.

This was merely the first in a series of market collapses, but most of Venice’s new high-tech start-ups went out of business as a result.  The Speyer press survived – barely.  Vindelinus sold a large stake in the company to two new investors: Johannes de Colonia (also called Johannes of Köln or Cologne), and Johannes MaColonia and Manthen's colophonnthen de Gerresheim.   Colonia and Manthen became the senior partners in the business; Vindelinus’ name disappeared from the company until 1476.

Colonia and Manthen were prolific printers, producing 86 editions from 1474 to 1480.  They gave up on the Greek and Roman classics after 1475 and shifted their focus to the more profitable market in law, theology, and philosophy.   This book is an example of the output from their reinvented company, produced during their first year of business.

Although the Speyer brothers are sometimes credited as the originators of Roman type, this book was printed using their space-saving but Backwards Nelegant Gothic.  Like many other early printed books, the printers left space for initials and ornament to be added by hand.  In this copy, several of the initial Ns are written backwards, for what reason we do not know.

There’s much more this book could tell us; a book is never just a book when it’s in Special Collections.  As its own history shows, this particular book has been an active participant in a tradition of study that has continued for hundreds of years.

Want to Read More?

The following resources are available at MU Libraries.


BindingAguzzi-Barbagli, Danilo.  “Roberto Caracciolo of Lecce,c. 1425-6 May 1495.” In Contemporaries of Erasmus: a biographical register of the Renaissance and Reformation. Ed. Peter G. Bietenholz, Thomas B. Deutscher, associate editor. Toronto: University of Toronto Press, c1985.

Gerulaitis, Leonardas Vytautas.  Printing and Publishing in Fifteenth-Century Venice.  Chicago: American Library Association, 1976.

Telle, Emile V.  “En marge de l’éloquence sacreé aux XVe-XVIe siècles: Erasme et Fra Roberto Caracciolo.”  Bibliothèque d’humanisme et Renaissance.  Travaux et Documents 43 (1981): 449-470.

[1] The word incunabulum (plural incunabula, or incunable(s), if you prefer English) means in the cradle in Latin.  It is generally applied to printed books produced prior to 1501, in the earliest years of printing.


New Digital Exhibit

Controlling Heredity: The American Eugenics Crusade, 1870-1940 has recently been mounted as a permanent exhibit on the website of the Special Collections and Rare Books department.  This virtual exhibit explores the intersections between ethics and the pseudo-science of eugenics in the late nineteenth and early twentieth centuries. It was originally mounted as part of Ethics and the Brain, the seventh annual symposium sponsored by the Life Sciences and Society Program at the University of Missouri in March 2011.

home Resources and Services, Special Collections and Archives April Fools! The Praise of Folly by Desiderius Erasmus.

April Fools! The Praise of Folly by Desiderius Erasmus.

This April Fool’s Day we thought we’d share several editions of Moriae Encomium by Desiderius Erasmus, which, in addition to being a definitive resource on fools and foolishness, has a great Latin pun for a title.

Holbein frontispieceFrontispiece portrait of Erasmus, engraving after Hans Holbein (London, 1709).

Erasmus, More, and Holbein portrait frontispieceFrontispiece and engraved title page featuring Erasmus, More, Holbein, and Folly as a goddess (Leiden, 1715).

Holbein illustrationsThe folly of scholarship, engravings after Hans Holbein (Paris, 1715).

Eisen frontispieceFrontispiece illustration of Folly as a goddess, illustration after Charles Eisen (Paris, 1757).

Eisen illustrationThe folly of drunkenness, engraving after Charles Eisen (Paris, 1757).

Chodowiecki illustrationsVarious types of folly, engravings after Daniel Chodowiecki (Berlin, 1781).

Ward illustrationThe folly of pedagogues, mezzotint by Lynd Ward (New York, 1953).

Desiderius Erasmus (1466-1536) isn’t the figure one would suppose to be an authority on foolishness.  Ordained as a priest and consecrated as a monk, Erasmus spent his life as a classical scholar, humanist, and theologian.  Although he is best known for theological work, he was also a prolific and engaging author whose works ranged from popular handbooks on children’s table manners to bitter mockeries of Church and state officials.

The Praise of…  More?

Around 1498, Erasmus moved to England, where he met Sir Thomas More, the author of Utopia.  The two men worked together on a translation of the works of Lucian and became close friends. Erasmus moved to Italy to pursue a doctorate in divinity in 1500, but he and More continued to write to each other regularly.

In 1509, Erasmus returned to England and wrote Moriae Encomium during his journey, dedicating it to More.  The title of the work makes an affectionate joke of More’s last name – Moriae Encomium can be translated as either The Praise of Folly or The Praise of More.  Erasmus continued the wordplay throughout the text, parodying the elaborate literary style both he and More would have encountered in their classical studies.

Erasmus considered Moriae Encomium a minor work and was surprised and dismayed at its popularity upon its first publication in 1511.  The work went through multiple editions and translations in his lifetime, and it touched off an entirely new literary genre – the spoof encomium, which became popular among learned Elizabethans.

Picturing Folly

Moriae Encomium also gave rise to an artistic tradition.  The artist Hans Holbein, a mutual friend of Erasmus and More, decorated Erasmus’ own copy of the book with marginal drawings.  Holbein’s humorous doodles were adapted as engravings in a later edition, and they were copied for the next two hundred years.  They have served as an inspiration – or a point of departure – for the generations of artists who have illustrated this text.

The Division of Special Collections, Archives, and Rare Books has editions of Moriae Encomium ranging from the seventeenth through the twentieth centuries, and many are illustrated.  In addition to Holbein, illustrators include Charles Eisen, Daniel Chodowiecki, and Lynd Ward.  The images above are just a sampling from our collection.  Enjoy!


  1. L’Eloge de la Folie composé en forme de declamation… , illustrated with engravings after the designs of Hans Holbein (Leiden, P. vander Aa, 1715).  RARE PA8514 .F8 1715
  2. L’Eloge de la Folie, illustrated by Charles Eisen (Paris, n.p., 1757).  RARE PA8514 .F8 1757
  3. Moriae Encomium: or, A Panegyrick Upon Folly, illustrated with engravings after the designs of Hans Holbein (London, Printed, and sold by J. Woodward, in Threadneedle street, 1709).  RARE PA8514.E5 1709
  4. L’Eloge de la Folie, illustrated by Charles Eisen (Paris, n.p., 1757).  RARE PA8514 .F8 1757
  5. Moriae Encomium: or, The Praise of Folly, illustrated by Lynd Ward (New York: Limited Editions Club, 1943).  RARE PA8514 .E5 1943
  6. L’Eloge de la Folie composé en forme de declamation… , illustrated with engravings after the designs of Hans Holbein (Leiden, P. vander Aa, 1715).  RARE PA8514 .F8 1715
  7. Das Lob der Narrheit aus dem Lateinischen, illustrated by Daniel Chodowiecki (Berlin: G.J. Decker, 1781).  RARE PA8514 .G3 1781
home Resources and Services, Special Collections and Archives Tennessee Williams’ first two plays

Tennessee Williams’ first two plays

Before Cat on a Hot Tin Roof, A Streetcar Named Desire, and The Glass Menagerie, there were Beauty is the Word and Hot Milk at Three in the Morning.  And before he went by Tennessee, playwright Thomas Lanier Williams was an MU student.  This weekend kicks off campus-wide celebrations of Williams’ 100th birthday, and to join in the festivities, we’re featuring two manuscripts of his earliest plays.

Beauty is the Word
Tennessee Williams' stage diagram for Beauty is the Word


Beauty is the Word was Williams’ very first play.  It was submitted for the MU Dramatic Arts Club’s Dramatic Prize Plays contest in 1930.  The play was produced on stage as part of the competition, but it appears not to have won an award in the contest.  Over the course of one act, two young and worldly aesthetes visit their austere and forbidding missionary relatives somewhere in the South Pacific.  When the natives revolt and threaten to burn down the mission, the young couple saves the day by appealing to the natives with dance and music rather than fear of damnation.

Hot Milk at Three in the Morning
Title page for Hot Milk at Three in the Morning, featuring the signature of Thomas Lanier Williams


Hot Milk at Three in the Morning was Williams’ sophomore submission to the Dramatic Prize Plays contest.  The play focuses on an argument between a young married couple who are trapped by poverty and illness.  It was staged in 1932, and like Beauty is the Word, it received an honorable mention.  Williams revised the play in 1940, titling it Moony’s Kid Don’t Cry.  It was included in a compilation of the best plays of 1940 and was the first of Williams’ plays to be published.

The manuscripts
The manuscripts were bound into volumes with other submissions for each year.


Both manuscripts are a part of the University of Missouri Collection, which features official publications along with the works of faculty, staff, and distinguished alumni.

home Events and Exhibits, Special Collections and Archives Stefani Engelstein’s Opening Lecture for “Controlling Heredity”

Stefani Engelstein’s Opening Lecture for “Controlling Heredity”

Stefani Engelstein, professor of  German at the University of Missouri, presented a lecture entitled “Visions of Transparency: The Human Body and Social Order,” on March 8 in the Ellis Library Colonnade.  Dr. Engelstein’s talk opened the exhibit Controlling Heredity: The American Eugenics Crusade 1870 – 1940, which is on display in the Colonnade until March 30.  The exhibit and lecture are part of the Life Sciences & Society Symposium series.  A video of the lecture in its entirety is available below.

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Special Collections Reading Room

Special Collections Reading Room


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Kelli Hansen

Kelli Hansen is head of the Special Collections and Rare Books department.

home Resources and Services, Special Collections and Archives A Flora of North America by William P.C. Barton.

A Flora of North America by William P.C. Barton.

Philadelphia: Carey & Lea, 1823. 3 vols.
RARE RES QK112 .B28 1821
Gift of Kenneth and Mary Tisdel

Ladyslipper orchid (Cypripedium humile)
William P.C. Barton (1786-1856) was a naval surgeon and professor of botany at the University of Pennsylvania. His Flora of North America is a catalogue of the flowering native plants of North America illustrated with hand-colored engravings

Barton's Flora is an important early American color plate book. Like many other illustrated works of science and natural history of this period, the rich illustrations of Barton’s Flora made the publication expensive to produce. To offset the cost, it was sold by subscription. Subscribers would have bought the book ready-made. Instead, they would have received installments of one or two sections at a time, and would have had their copies bound as the volumes were completed.

Barton’s descriptions of plants include the current Latin name of each species, the names used by the botanists Carolus Linnaeus and Antoine Laurent de Jussieu, and common English names. His discussion also includes growing habits, ranges and habitat, and the history and usages of each plant.

Barton paid particular attention to native orchids, many of which are threatened today. In his description of the ladyslipper orchid (Cypripedium humile), he notes the plant’s fragility:

It is a favorite flower, from the circumstance of its continuing to bloom a long time. It does not, however, bear the soil or atmosphere of common gardens… I have repeatedly attempted to cultivate it, but have never had a plant to bloom a second season.

Although Barton wrote before the main era of westward expansion and thus focused on the eastern United States, he includes wildflowers that also inhabit the midwest. His illustrations of Rudbeckia purpurea, Coreopsis tinctoria, and Aquilegia canadensis may be familiar to Missourians as purple coneflower, golden tickseed, and columbine.

Trillium (Trillium cernuum)


Barton put forward his Flora in order to promote an interest in botany among American scientists and the general public, and he expresses a certain measure of territorialism toward American natural history. In the preface to this book, Barton states that Americans have neglected the study of their own plants and left too much responsibility to European scientists. He cautions the American medical and scientific community against allowing too much of their “extensive domains” to be published by foreign scholars, and he wrote, “Can any American examine the splendid and useful work of the younger Michaux, on our forest trees, without a pang of mortifying regret that the author of such a work was not an American?”

Columbine (Aquilegia canadensis)


Barton’s attempts to make up for the failures of American naturalists may also have been personal. His uncle, Benjamin Smith Barton, was the most prominent American botanist of the previous generation, but he failed to publish the botanical samples Lewis and Clark brought back from their expedition, and even lost some of them. William Barton’s work was intended as a first step in the advancement of American scientific thought. Considering himself to be embarking on an extensive work of national importance, Barton dedicated the first volume to President James Monroe.

The illustrations for this volume were drawn from nature by Barton, engraved in the workshop of Cornelius Tiebout of Philadelphia, and colored by hand, “its execution being wholly accomplished by American artists.” Barton paid special attention to color; in one of the prefaces of the first volume, he provides color charts with real-world explanations of the terms he uses to describe plants. For example, if the reader did not understand what Barton meant by “duck green,” he or she could look at the neck of a mallard, the upper disk of yew leaves, or the mineral ceylanite to get an idea. Similarly, the term “venous blood red” denoted the color of blood, musk flower, or the mineral pyrope. This attempt at accuracy was important before the invention of color photography.

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Kelli Hansen

Kelli Hansen is head of the Special Collections and Rare Books department.

home Resources and Services, Special Collections and Archives Catherine the Great’s Promotion Charter

Catherine the Great’s Promotion Charter

by Alla Barabtarlo
June 2006

I. The Charter

Preserved in the Rare Book Collections is a very curious document – a beautiful two-hundred-and-sixteen year-old charter endorsed by the Russian Empress Catherine the Great, that promotes Aleksandr Mukhanov, a young Russian nobleman, from regimental baggage-train driver to Lieutenant-Captain (Secund-Rotmistr) in the Horse-Mounted Guards.


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This unique document – likely acquired "somewhere in the 1920s" within a large and important collection of books and documents purchased for the University Library – is printed on parchment with a hand-painted border of cobalt blue. There is a monogram of Catherine the Great at the center of the top border, surrounded by double-headed crowned birds, banners, firearms and cold steel, armor, and bows and quivers.


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In each corner there is a helmet with a plume decorated with oriental ornaments and an allegorical figure of Minerva on the left hand side and one of Mars on the right. At the bottom of the border, in a medallion, one can see a military transport and two pairs of horses, surrounded by banners, cannon, cartridge pouches and drums.


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The text itself starts with a six-line ornamental initial. The document carries traces of the Russian Imperial wax seal.

Literal Translation of the Charter:

By the Grace of God, We, Catherine the Second, Empress and Autocratrix of All the Russians, &c, &c, &c.

Let it be known and recognized by all that as of the first day of the month of January, in the year of Our Lord one thousand-seven hundred-and-ninetieth, We have Most Graciously bestowed and conferred upon Aleksandr Mukhanov who had served Us as regiment baggage-train driver in the Horse-Mounted regiment of Our Guards, and in acknowledgement of the zeal and diligence with which he disposed of his duty in Our service, – the rank of Lieutenant-Captain in the self-same regiment; and whereas We bestow and confer this upon him, commanding all Our men to pay the said Mukhanov the honors and respect befitting the rank of Our Lieutenant-Captain in the Guards, are accordingly trustful that in this rank, most Graciously granted him by Us, he will deport himself in a manner that behooves a loyal Officer of the Guards. In testimony thereof We have signed this with Our own Hand and commanded that it be confirmed by Our State Seal.

Given in Saint Petersburg, in the year 1790, {on the 24th Day of December}




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On the lower line there is a signature, by a different hand: Lieutenant-Colonel {Saltykov} of the Guards Horse Mounted Regiment.

Almost everything in this document raises questions: Who was Mukhanov, and why was he so abruptly promoted from the lowest ranks to a position of high prestige? If the promotion was effective as of January 1st 1790, why was the order signed almost a year later, on Christmas Eve of 1790? What happened to Mukhanov later? How did the original document find its way to mid-Missouri? These are among the many baffling questions to which we may never have a definite answer, but a bit of detective work can cast some light upon the mysteries of the past.

II. Our hero – Mukhanov

Aleksandr Il'ich Mukhanov was born on January 8, 1766 into a noble family. He had six brothers and one sister. His father, Il’ia Mukhanov, was a Colonel in the Horse-Mounted Regiment, from which he retired in 1764, and he was personally known to the Empress. On the day of her ascension to the throne as a result of a coup – July 28th 1762 – Il'ia Mukhanov was among the officers in her convoy on the way to St. Petersburg.

When the future Empress felt cold, Il'ia Mukhanov gave her his officer's overcoat. She always remembered this gesture with gratitude.

According to the memoirs of Aleksandr Mukhanov's niece, five older brothers were educated at home, and the youngest one, Michael, at the Military School. All of them served at the same Life-Guards regiment. And as a contemporary anecdote has it, some pupils of the convent school for young noble ladies thought that all Life-Guards were named Mukhanov. Honesty, piety, and familial loyalty were among the young men's virtues, according to Mukhanov's niece.

Aleksandr Mukhanov joined the regiment in 1775, at the age of 9. It was customary in 18th-century Russia to enlist a boy of noble birth in a regiment as a soldier, so that when he came of age he would be ready to receive his first officer's commission and to begin his real service in a regiment

If we look at the list of his promotions, we can see that he was first promoted to a cornet in 1784, at the age of 18 . He was promoted again in 1792 to a captain (rotmistr), and on November 15, 1796, only nine days after Catherine's death, he became colonel and was decorated with the Order of St. Anne.

After Catherine's son Paul ascended to the throne, Mukhanov's career took a sharp upswing. In March of 1798, two month after his first son Paul was born, Mukhanov retired from the Guards and was given a civil rank of State Councilor (slightly higher than colonel), became a Knight Commander of the Order of St. John of Jerusalem, and on September 5th, was appointed Vice Governor of the city of Novgorod. He was advanced to an Actual State Councilor (corresponds to a Major General) and then appointed Governor of Kazan, the capital of an important province, on April 4, 1799. After Emperor Paul's assassination in 1801, Aleksandr Mukhanov was relieved of his governorship and brought before the Senate for trial on charges of cruelties committed while governor of Kazan. He was 35 years old.

But it was not the end of his career. On May 6, 1805, he was sent to the south of Russia to be a civil governor of Poltava, and in the following year he became a civil governor of Riazan. Later he returned to St. Petersburg, and received a rank of Stalmeister at the Imperial Court (Master of the Horse), which, according to the Russian Table of Ranks, corresponded to the rank of Lieutenant General. He spent the last years of his life in Moscow, where he died, and was buried in the cemetery of Novodevichii Convent on October 22, 1815.

III. A Christmas Gift

It can only be conjectured that at the end of 1789 Mukhanov was ready for the promotion to the rank of second-lieutenant, when something happened that impeded his rising through the ranks of the regiment.

These and other considerations lead to the supposition that the whole matter of the demotion and promotion of Aleksandr Mukhanov could be to a certain extent a domestic affair for Catherine, who could be moralistic but was more-or-less good-natured.

The older the Empress grew, the younger her lovers became. But in this case one can be reasonably certain that nothing remotely resembling a romance played any part in Mukhanov’s misfortune and subsequent recovery. For the simple reason that Catherine’s son, Emperor Paul, disliked his mother so much (after she had his royal father deposed and strangled), and hated her lovers with such vehemence, that once he had gained the throne himself, he repaid them in kind, trying to undo everything his mother did, and variously rewarding anyone who had previously had the courage, or simply the misfortune, ever to cross one of those powerful favorites. It was at this time that Paul started piling his favors upon Mukhanov almost the day after he had become the Emperor; thus, one might safely assume that Mukhanov, far from being intimate with Catherine, quite likely had stepped on a toe or two within her inner circle, and suffered the consequences – until the Empress took pity on him.

In the case of Aleksandr Mukhanov it looks as if he was punished by a firm but benevolent, almost motherly hand, and when he showed (perhaps) genuine regret, or demonstrated extraordinary courage on the battlefield (maybe), he was generously rewarded: promoted not to the next higher rank, but over two ranks, and evidently received a year-worth salary of a Lieutenant-Captain in back pay to boot! Above all it was a nice Christmas gift: there was a blank at the end of the charter, filled in longhand when it was signed: December the 24th.


This was the end of the document, but not of the story. Our hero's great-grandson Bakhmetiev served as the last Russian ambassador in the United States, and after the Bolshevik coup never returned home. He married an American, Mamie Beale, and one hopes they lived long and happily. Curiously enough, another person related to our university – David Francis – was at the same time the very last American ambassador to the Russian Empire.

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Kelli Hansen

Kelli Hansen is head of the Special Collections and Rare Books department.

home Resources and Services, Special Collections and Archives De Historia Stirpium by Leonhart Fuchs

De Historia Stirpium by Leonhart Fuchs

Kelli Hansen
Nov. 2004
Photos: Andrew Hansen

Fuchs, Leonhart. De historia stirpivm commentarii insignes… Basileae, In officina Isingriniana, 1542. RARE RES QK41 .F7

The Division of Special Collections hs-iris-largehouses some of the most valuable and significant resources in the holdings of MU Libraries. The materials in the collections range in time period from antiquity to the present and include medieval manuscript pages, examples of early printing, fine press books, and important scientific works from the sixteenth and seventeenth centuries, among many other things. These books are not only wonderful treasures; they also greatly enrich the educational and research experiences of the University's students, faculty, and staff.hs-fuchs-large

One book in particular exemplifies the abundance of information available to scholars in Special Collections resources. This book, De Historia Stirpium comentarii insignes (or Notable Commentaries on the History of Plants), was a gift from the Friends of the Library in 1963. It was published by a German physician and medical professor named Leonhart Fuchs in 1542. De Historia Stirpium is part of a long tradition of herbals, or books that describe plants and their medicinal uses. Before the sixteenth century, most herbals were based on folk traditions and Greek and Roman texts, not on scientific or artistic observation. Leonhart Fuchs broke with tradition by becoming interested in illustrating plants as they looked in nature instead of using conventional (and often bizarrely inaccurate) representations. 

hs-artists-largeFuchs hired three professional artists to help him with this undertaking: Albrecht Meyer, who drew the plants from life; Heinrich Füllmaurer, who transferred the line drawings to woodblocks; and Vitus Rudolph Speckle, who cut the blocks and printed the woodcut illustrations. The beautiful, densely illustrated book that resulted from their efforts contains some of the finest pictures of plants in the sixteenth century, many hand-colored under Fuchs’ supervision for the greatest accuracy. De Historia Stirpium is notable among early scientific books for its inclusion of the artists’ names and portraits in the back of the book.

Fuchs’ interest in realistic representations accorded with the Renaissance ideal of naturalism, but it also served a practical purpose – he wanted his book to be a reference for his medical students and fellow doctors. While the images were cutting-edge for their time, Fuchs was not as revolutionary in the text, and his descriptions of each plant’s medicinal properties still draw largely on the writings of Greek and Roman authors such as Dioscorides, Galen and Pliny. Even so, Fuchs did encourage his own students to cultivate and study medicinal plants firsthand. Surviving copies of De Historia Stirpium often contain pressed plant samples, stains, and marginal notes that point to extensive use, and the copy belonging to Special Collections is no exception. In this way, De Historia Stirpium can give modern scholars insight into the ways early physicians studied and administered herbal medicines.


De Historia Stirpium was more than a lavishly illustrated compendium of remedies. The book also introduced many Europeans to the unfamiliar fruits, vegetables and plants being imported from the Americas. De Historia Stirpium contains the first description and illustration of over 100 species of plants, including pumpkins, squash, chili peppers, and maize, although some species are misidentified. It is thought that some of these plants were drawn from specimens or seeds Fuchs acquired and grew in his own garden.

hs-cover-largeDe Historia Stirpium is one of the most valuable books in Special Collections, and it is also one of the most significant scholarly resources. This single book can be studied for its relationship to other herbals, artistic collaboration, scientific illustration, publishing history, the history of botany, and the history of medicine. In the same way, the materials housed in the Division of Special Collections allow students and scholars to explore a wide range of research topics by a variety of methods, from delving into rare historical and scientific texts to studying original examples of the book arts. Special Collections materials, including books like De Historia Stirpium, are not only treasures; they are also important resources open to use by all researchers.

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Kelli Hansen

Kelli Hansen is head of the Special Collections and Rare Books department.